Friday Rant: Atheists Need To Be Brighter

Now that the Darwin Reclamation Project collage has been posted, I can confess that I have a few problems with the recent atheist action that sought to counter the dunderhead Ray Comfort and his Creationist propaganda ministry. I'm not sure who originally suggested this action, but I don't think it was well thought out. Having athiests systematically round up as many copies as they can of a work they disagree with (however ridiculous such a work may be) stinks of censorship and creates an impression in the broader public that Comfort's arguments are somehow threatening to evolutionary biologists. Obviously neither is the case. But a successful campaign is one that changes the debate and/or uses the powerful group's strategy against them.

For example, the activist group Billionaires for Bush (now Billionaires for Wealthcare) have done an excellent job of using humor, creativity, and effective strategy in their many campaigns. Andrew Boyd, one of the founders of B4B, told me about a particularly successful action while we were both attending a conference a few years ago. On this occasion Karl Rove, George W. Bush's political tactician affectionately known as "turd blossom," was arriving at a fancy hotel to give a speech. This being the height of the administration's colossal stupidity in Iraq, the usual suspects had turned out to protest. There was Medea Benjamin with Code Pink, her fashionistas bedazzled in pink boas and holding protest signs, a contingent from World Can't Wait with a banner demanding that the troops come home now, and assorted punk anarchists with their Zapatista bandanas in the hopes that they'd be teargassed. The police were attempting to figure out how to legally keep these rabble rousers off of the public sidewalk leading up to the hotel.

Meanwhile, Boyd and the Billionaires for Bush come marching down the sidewalk from another direction costumed in tuxedos, top hats, fake furs and pearls (one of them even had a monocle). They were also holding protest signs, except that theirs read, "Rove is Innocent." Everyone was nervous as they approached closer to the police who were guarding the red carpet entrance to the hotel. One of the officers reached down to his walkie talkie and reported in. "We've got two protest groups here," he stated. "One against . . ." Then the cop looked over the assembled mob of fake bankers and socialites. ". . . and one for." Code Pink and the other protesters were herded into a designated "protest zone" across the street and out of view of the cameras. The Billionaires for Bush, however, were placed right next to the red carpet. Boyd started laughing as he told me that multiple reporters, taking them at face value, interviewed them and asked, "You say Karl Rove is innocent. What is he accused of?" Message achieved.

My point in bringing this up is that actions matter, in more ways than one. In organizing an action it needs to be tactical and with a clear goal in mind. It also needs to be creative and be appropriate to the local context. An action that works in Seattle, Washington may not be the best approach for Topeka, Kansas. So what would've been a better response to Comfort and his fellow creationists? That's not for me to say, but I can offer a few ideas. Perhaps a similar approach to the Billionaires for Bush would work in some cases. Comfort is trying to claim that Darwin was responsible for the Holocaust. Make him own that position. Get a bunch of people to dress conservatively and have big signs depicting Darwin as a Nazi. Go as over the top as possible and make sure that many of the signs have poor spelling. Have other people hold signs with a large picture of Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron that people are praying to. Run around the quad with bananas and a cross insisting that this represents the atheists' nightmare. "Did you know that Darwin was wrong about bananas?!" It may be hard to out crazy some of the crazies, but be creative and have fun. Look at Christwire and the Landover Baptist Church for some inspiration.

I would also say that there needs to be some more thought about what atheism as a movement hopes to achieve. If punking websites and causing mischief wherever creationists show up is the extent of your activity then you're only being reactive and aren't helping to make atheism more acceptable. Identify policies that are biased towards religious groups in your university or community and petition the administration to change them. Putting up plaques or billboards can be an effective way to get people talking, but identifying specific policies is the way to affect real change. If your interests are primarily about promoting a greater understanding of evolutionary biology, start a discussion group at a youth center or even a church. Emphasize Darwin's difficulty in developing a theory that fundamentally challenged the beliefs of his wife who he was truly devoted to. Make Darwin a person, not just a set of ideas, and show how his struggles to let go of religion in the face of overwhelming evidence are the same as that struggle today.

And remember that facts and arguments are not going to convince everybody. Their connection to religion is emotional, so showing how morality can be achieved without religion may be a very effective strategy. Thanksgiving and Christmas are coming up. Your Secular or Atheist Student Alliance could organize a canned food or turkey drive. Volunteer at a children's hospital for a day and do some science tricks. Make contacts with elementary and junior high schools to show how science is fun. In these cases you wouldn't need to talk about atheism, your actions would speak louder. And if your university or high school doesn't have an Atheist Student Alliance yet, start one. Hold weekly discussions with campus religious groups and talk with other atheists about what specific strategies you'd like to focus on as an organization.

There are many strategies that can be effective in countering the creationist agenda. My point though is that it should be a strategy that is proactive, and not just responding to what creationists initiate. It's time to take it to the next level. What I've suggested here are just a few possible ideas. What's more important is what you and your organizations do. What do you suggest? What's been effective in the past? Let people know in the comments below.

More like this

I thought the NCSE's "Don't Diss Darwin" program was much more on target. Don't censor, but do provide additional information to people who are getting the book. (And mock them a little...)

heir connection to religion is emotional, so showing how morality can be achieved without religion may be a very effective strategy.

Or more likely they'll take whatever kindness you're willing to give and follow up by berating you for not accepting Jesus. Then justify hating you based on that single fact. I'm not saying we shouldn't treat people decently, I'm just saying it isn't going to change hearts or minds.

By JThompson (not verified) on 20 Nov 2009 #permalink

That's a pretty loaded statement JThompson. Talked too every Christian out there and been rudely rejected have you?

This is why I see the atheist movement as an epic fail. Especially online it's gotten to the point where atheists automatically assume they are smarter and better then theists. Look at the comments you get at Pharyngula or even here (and I consider Primate Diaries to be probably the most polite and reasonable only slightly pro-atheist blog), and you just see a new form of prejudice surfacing.

EMJ, I wear a shirt that just says "Ask me about Evolution" on the back of it. It works pretty well, because I primarily attract either people who already have an interest but don't have much knowledge or liberal minded Christians I can have a good discussion with.

I've been thinking a lot just recently that one big worry out there is that atheists are perceived as not nice people. I personally think we need to work on our image, do things to show we are kind, ethical human beings.

I teach my children that if you want to defeat someone (we were talking about bullies), your best bet is to react with the opposite of their negative emotion. If you're aggressive, the shields go up. If you're kind, consistently, it's hard for anyone to justify keeping those shields up. Once the shields are down, that is when rational, friendly discussion can take place.

You wouldn't want to sit down over a cup of coffee (I almost said tea, then I remembered you guys are in America, hahaha) with a guy who'd been shaking anti-atheist posters around outside a moment ago, would you? But I wager you'd be happy to do so with a Christian who's made his views clear but has been careful to not ridicule yours, and has shown himself willing and able to debate without reverting to stupid tactics.

I agree, though I follow Pharyngula, that the viciousness and spite on there make me want to withdraw rather than participate. To use the analogy of a room, we need to be a comfortable sitting room with flames crackling in the open fireplace, instead of a weird room with comfy stuffed chairs for the locals but beds of nails for visitors to sit on while everyone laughs at them.

Hope that makes sense.

@Jesse: No, but I certainly know a lot of them. I haven't been "rejected" because I don't seek their approval. I have worked for various charities and had a surprisingly large number of people I was in the process of helping at the time inform me of how I was going to hell and how much I deserved it. It didn't stop me from helping them because that wasn't why I was helping them in the first place. They weren't even reacting to my being an atheist, they were reacting to the little legged fish tattoo on my shoulder.

By the way, that shirt you wear: It'd get you jumped and beaten here. Southern Baptists have zero tolerance for free thought. That's why it amuses me endlessly when people that have only read about rabid fundamentalists in blogs presume to tell those of us that deal with them on a daily basis how to act. These people are crazy. Attempting to reason with them only enrages them. You will not "win them over". At best you'll manage to steer public opinion against them enough to marginalize them. Then they'll just start blowing shit up.

By JThompson (not verified) on 20 Nov 2009 #permalink


It sounds like atheists and freethinkers such as you have a really hard time where you are, and I can see how that would colour your opinions of them. But if the atheists movement is going to stand for anything it needs to stand against making huge sweeping generalizations like you are. Your part of the States doesn't represent the entire States, let alone Canada (where I and EMJ are) or the UK (though admittedly it does represent some sections of Christianity here in Alberta) or Europe.

Especially online, where people can be from anywhere, I think we need to be careful not too tar everyone with the same brush. More important, in fact, because it's a tactic that a lot of fundie spokespeople use, Ken Ham for example.

If you want a very liberal, progressive Christian blog that actually welcomes atheists check out Aaron Gardner's I use it as an antidote to the truly hateful fundie's.

i also can't help but feel that if people recognise that we're all in this together and have to look after each other (+ everything else) their opion on whether or not there's a fat bloke sitting in the clouds watching them is perhaps somewhat secondary.

i know many people who are a hell of a lot crazier than that and they're lovely people...